Publisher: Fuelcell Games
Developer: Fuelcell Games
ESRB rating: Everyone
Release date: Available now
The nice thing about Microsoft’s annual Summer of Arcade promotion is that you get high-quality new indie games for the reasonable price of $15 (1200 spacebucks). The third entry in this year’s roster, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, is no exception, offering simple yet involving gameplay with a minimalist flair.
In Shadow Planet, you guide a flying saucer through a labyrinth of tunnels and chambers to track down and eradicate an alien infection that has attacked your planet. You start out with a scanning beam that identifies significant objects and gives you guidance on how to deal with them. As you progress through the game’s six zones, you acquire more tools to help you in your quest. These include a rotating sawblade, a projectile weapon, a grapple arm, guided missiles and a laser beam that overloads and briefly shuts down should you use it for too long.
Developer Fuelcell has pretty much left you to your own devices when learning how to play Shadow Planet. There are no written instructions to be found anywhere in the single-player campaign, and the “How to Play” section of the help menu only gives you icons to study. Controls are basic but confounding until you get used to using them — move the ship with the left stick, control the selected tool with the right. Shoulder buttons open a radial menu that you use to select a tool; you can hotkey four of these to the controller buttons for ease of use.
The button you might use more than the others is the one that brings up the world map. Sections of the map are revealed as you move through the tunnels. Locations of ship upgrades are noted, but some of them are placed in areas that are inaccessible to you until you acquire the correct tool to reach them. Each of the game zones has its own set of challenges. One is played in almost total darkness, another has your ship traveling with fast-moving currents, and there’s a mechanical area in which the orientation of the world is shifted when you enter certain areas, making it possible to use tunnels that you couldn’t enter before.
Most of the enemies in Shadow Planet can be successfully avoided instead of engaged, but each zone has at least one boss that has to be defeated to move on. These range from fairly simple to maddeningly frustrating; it’s easy to figure out how to defeat them, but actually doing it is another story. Graphics are reminiscent of last year’s Limbo, but very colorful instead of the latter’s stark black and white. Music and background sounds are minimal but effective. Autosaves are plentiful, so you won’t have to go back very far if your ship is destroyed, and there are safe areas in the tunnels where your ship’s damage is repaired. On the other hand, you have no control over the camera, which zooms in and out on its own in sometimes inconvenient places. The world map is essential, but there’s no minimap on the screen, so you’re continually forced to find a safe place to stop so you can activate the map, taking you out of the action. The final boss is surprisingly easy to defeat, and the achievement gained by beating it didn’t pop for me; I had to reload my last save point before the battle to finally get the points. And the game’s only multiplayer mode, Lantern Run, feels like an afterthought; you and up to three other players have to drag lanterns from left to right while being chased by a giant squid.
Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is perfect Summer of Arcade fare. It looks great, it plays smooth and simple, and you can squeeze eight to 10 hours out of it if you crave the achievements for revealing the entire map and retrieving all of the collectibles. Adding a minimap in the top corner of the screen would’ve been a welcome addition, and having some form of camera control would’ve helped things move along a bit, but it’s still an excellent little indie game at a very good price.